Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Many U.S. kids can’t swim and are at risk for drowning

A 2017 study found that 64 percent of African American children, 45 percent of Hispanic children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children in the U.S. have no or low swimming ability, putting them at risk for drowning.

Heaven Gonzalez, 8, closes her eyes and goes under the water during her swim time at the Germantown Life Enrichment Center.
Heaven Gonzalez, 8, closes her eyes and goes under the water during her swim time at the Germantown Life Enrichment Center.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT

Brandi Mapp-Evans admits the deep end of the pool scares her.

"I don't know how to tread water," said the 37-year-old teacher from Lawncrest in Northeast Philadelphia. Swimming was never part of her life – probably because she has feared being in a pool since she was a child, she said.

She worried that her daughter, Savannah, would follow suit when, as a preschooler, she wouldn't budge off the ladder of the pool, Mapp-Evans said.

The difference: Savannah wanted to follow her cousins into the water, so she soon was off the ladder and splashing around in the shallow end.

Mapp-Evans seized the opportunity to sign her up for swimming lessons at Germantown Life Enrichment Center. Savannah, now 10, is on the swim team and looking forward to swimming in high school.

Those lessons helped Savannah and the other children at GLEC defy a dangerous trend: Too many American children can't swim well enough to escape drowning.

A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Memphis found that 64 percent of African American children, 45 percent of Hispanic children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children in the United States have no or low swimming ability, putting them at risk for drowning. Pools may be easy enough to avoid, but children have drowned even in circumstances that might not seem to require swimming ability, such as going to the shore or a lake and promising to avoid deep water.

The study, commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, surveyed swimming ability in youth ages 6 to 16 in different cities.

From 2005 to 2014, there were about 3,500 drownings in the U.S. One in five were children 14 and younger, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Income is a big factor, simply because children whose families don't have pools or access to one are far less likely to learn to swim. Swimming ability of the parents is another. If a child's parents don't know how to swim, there is only a 19 percent chance that the child will learn, according to the CDC.

In 2008, USA Swimming debuted its Make a Splash program, which offers grants to facilities in low-income neighborhoods that promote water safety. The program has been credited with the increased number of kids — about 5 percent to 10 percent — who have learned to swim since its inception.

GLEC is one of three Philadelphia-area pools that are part of the program.

The center, which occupies the historic YMCA on Greene Street, offers swimming lessons, lifeguard training, water aerobics, swim team, water safety instructor courses, and lap and recreational swim times.

All kids are required to take a swim test at the start of every summer before they are allowed in the deep end of the pool, said Doris Swarn, 29, aquatics coordinator at GLEC. They must swim the pool's length and tread water for 60 seconds, she said.

"Knowing how to swim can get them out of danger," Swarn said. That danger extends beyond a pool. There are streams to play in and boats to fall from, she said. "Kids are adventurous."

Dominique McConnell, a forensic investigator for the city, brought her daughter Khy Pullins to GLEC to learn how to swim when she was about 6. Khy now competes on the swim team year-round.

"I drive from South Philadelphia to Germantown twice a week so we can participate in swimming," she said.

McConnell, who said she is a self-taught swimmer, recalled summer days in her youth when she and friends would hang out at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center pool at 17th and Catharine Streets.

Philadelphia maintains 78 public pools, including four year-round indoor pools that are owned by the School District, said Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of parks and recreation.

Swimming lessons are offered at all city-maintained pools, Ott Lovell said. Lessons are free at the outdoor pools, and at low cost or free at the indoor pools, with the goal of getting as many children as possible ready to swim, she said.

"In Philadelphia, we are really, really lucky," said Ott Lovell. "We have more pools per resident than any other city." In comparison, New York City has 30 public pools, she said.

But the pools are more expensive to operate and staff than the city's 170 spray parks, Ott Lovell said.

The spray parks do not require or encourage swimming ability – which can mean more lost opportunities to encourage learning to swim. McConnell said that when her family moved to Grays Ferry, there was only a sprinkler park nearby. Her younger brother did not have access to a pool and does not swim, she said.

Methodist Services in West Philadelphia is also part of the Make a Splash program. It offers swim lessons as well as caps and goggles to about 220 summer campers ages 5 to 15, said Kathrine Martin, senior vice president and executive director. Some of the children have gone on to compete on USA Swimming teams.

Now that more kids can swim, the camp has broadened its field trips to include a visit to the beach, she said.

"We feel like they are able to handle being in the ocean now," Martin said. "Without the swimming lessons, we would never have taken them to the Shore."

For Mapp-Evans, knowing her daughter can swim has provided her with peace of mind when Savannah goes to the beach or a pool with friends and family.

"I'm extremely comfortable with her abilities," she said. Though Mapp-Evans knows the risks she faces as an adult who can't swim, her fear of deep water still holds her back from taking lessons.

"I wish I had done it at her age," she said.

According to the American Red Cross, there are five critical water safety skills swimmers need to be able to complete to save their life in the water. They are:

  1. Step or jump into the water over their head.

  2. Return to the surface and float or tread water for one minute.

  3. Turn around in a full circle and find an exit.

  4. Swim 25 yards to the exit.

  5. Exit from the water. If in a pool, be able to exit without using the ladder.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city's push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.